Several high-profile British journalists have collaborated with Britain’s secret intelligence agency MI6 during the Cold War, a new investigation shows.
According to a BBC Radio 4’s Document programme called “The ‘secret agents’ of the UK press”, reports by a Soviet newspaper 45 years ago of “leaked” MI6 documents revealing the agency’s links with leading British newspapers were probably genuine.
In December 1968, the Russian newspaper Izvestia published a series of articles accusing senior journalists in the UK of being spies, listing their names and alleged codenames.
The paper said journalists and editors at the Observer, the Sunday Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the BBC worked secretly with MI6.
At the time, the claims were dismissed by all the newspapers and journalists concerned. The head of the BBC’s External Service described the articles as “a fantastic example of secret police propaganda”.
However, the BBC investigation by Jeremy Duns, which was aired earlier this week, suggested the documents were probably genuine and revealed how British spies used journalists to gather information.
The programme found the format and language of the documents published in the Russian paper were true, but establishing whether they were genuine was difficult, as MI6 has released no relevant files and all the people named are now dead.
The programme also discovered a redacted memo in the BBC archives dated April 24, 1969, which expressed sympathy for “friends caught up in the scandal”, referring to those working for MI6.
Furthermore, the Document programme interviewed a number of people who might know the truth. Espionage historians and former correspondents said that despite all the denials, the memos were genuine.
“These are genuine MI6 documents,” said Stephen Dorril, author of a history of MI6, adding that former MI6 officer Anthony Cavendish had told him that the agency used journalists in the Cold War.
BBC official historian Jean Seaton said the claims about the use of messages and tunes to assist M16 during the post-war period were “certainly plausible BBC style”.
Phillip Knightley, the former Sunday Times correspondent and espionage journalist, said, “It doesn’t surprise me. I had heard these names before banded around on Fleet Street.”